A new effort by The Ohio State University to support team-driven research has awarded funding to 19 proposals to investigate topics ranging from brain and bone health to drug manufacturing, new devices and deep learning.

The Accelerator grants were awarded through the President’s Research Excellence (PRE) program, an initiative launched this year to provide seed support for cross- and interdisciplinary research projects that have the potential to attract external funding. Accelerator grants of up to $50,000 fund small teams formed to pursue curiosity-driven, novel, high-risk and high-reward research.

The PRE program supports the university’s goals to help grow its research and innovation enterprise by attracting more externally sponsored research funding to address large, complex societal challenges. The program also includes an additional funding mechanism, Catalyst grants, for large cross- and interdisciplinary teams formed to pursue large-scale research addressing emerging or existing challenges of national and international societal importance. These grants of up to $200,000, will be awarded in the fall.

Ji Wang, assistant professor of astronomy, is part of a team taking up his own curiosity-driven challenge: the search for habitable planets. He is the lead investigator on a project called Peering into Alien Worlds: A Synergistic Astronomical, Geochemical, and Laser Engineering Approach to Explore the Habitability of Terrestrial Planets.

“The first interesting question is about identifying life on other planets, which will be a big, big deal. But the second major question we’re trying to answer is, ‘Do extrasolar planets resemble, or are they similar to, our solar system?’” he said.

The team includes Jennifer Johnson and Scott Gaudi, professors in the Department of Astronomy, Enam Chowdhury, assistant professor of materials science engineering, and Wendy Panero, professor of earth sciences, Wang said, because all three disciplines are needed to understand the size, composition and structure of planets.

“The structure of a planet is critically important to understand the habitability of an exoplanet,” he said. “That is why we think with this team of experts in high-power lasers, stellar physics, exoplanet physics and earth sciences, we can actually address this very ambitious problem.”

Tessa Cannon, a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology, is part of an Accelerator grant-winning team studying the microbiota in the digestive tracts of sooty mangabeys. These monkeys are carriers of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), which is closely related to HIV, but suffer no symptoms of the disease.

“We can really look at the other factors that influence the evolution … within the gut microbiome to allow these monkeys to be able to live with these super high infection rates and high rates of viral replication without ever having any problems,” Cannon said.

Vanessa Hale, assistant professor of veterinary preventive medicine and the lead investigator on the project, said the research is the starting point on solving real-world challenges.

“This past year-and-a-half has reminded us how animal health and environmental health is directly linked to human health,” Hale said.

The cross-disciplinary project is co-lead by anthropology professor Scott McGraw and Yael Vodovotz, a professor of food science and technology. The team approach enables attacking a problem that involves virology, microbiome science, primate ecology, and diet.

Hale said team research sometimes pushes experts out of their comfort zone.

“It’s can be challenging for us, but it also means the possibility to move science forward – it’s so much stronger and more exciting,” she said.

Teams funded through this round of Accelerator grants are expected to submit a report on their findings by August 2022 and another round of PRE awards funding is planned to begin in the spring.

Source: New Accelerator grants boost Ohio State research and innovation